As Verstappen gets the better of Leclerc again, is Ferrari capable of reacting?


The different design philosophies of the Ferrari and Red Bull cars means the latter can often preserve its tyres better – is there anything the Scuderia can do about this?

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 08: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB18 leads Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving (16) the Ferrari F1-75 during the F1 Grand Prix of Miami at the Miami International Autodrome on May 08, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Red Bull and Ferrari's tyre treatment differs significantly

Red Bull

Crucial Pirelli compound decisions 

Pre-race in Miami, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner pointed out that his team had two new sets of medium compound Pirelli tyres available for the 57 laps, while Ferrari had gone the other way and had two new sets of hards. He hoped that in the final analysis, with degradation unknown, it might prove decisive. And he was right. But perhaps not quite in the way he envisaged.

When the top three were in the cool-down room post-race, the pressing topic was how quick the Red Bull had been on the medium tyre. Charles Leclerc just shook his head and shrugged while Sergio Perez, who’d been trapped behind Carlos Sainz, wanted to know what lap times race leader Verstappen had been doing.

“We have to split them,” Horner had said on the grid, referring to Ferrari’s first from row lock-out since Mexico 2019, mindful that Ferrari would likely use Sainz as a buffer while Leclerc built a lead in the opening stint.

With that in mind I was surprised that Sainz hadn’t got his elbows out a little more in Turn 1 as Verstappen ran around his outside. In fairness though, how enthusiastic would you be about potentially compromising your own race and having an incident so that your team mate can sail off into the distance?

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 08: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB18 leads Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving (16) the Ferrari F1-75 during the F1 Grand Prix of Miami at the Miami International Autodrome on May 08, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Horner anticipated that tyre wear could make the difference

Red Bull

It would have made precious little difference in any case because such was Red Bull’s straight-line speed advantage that Verstappen would have waltzed past as soon as DRS was enabled in just the same way he later did with Leclerc.

On the hard tyre, Leclerc was just as quick, but he was too far behind by then – until the VSC and then full safety car for the Pierre Gasly / Lando Norris contact put him back in touch. Red Bull had their hearts in their mouths when the race went from VSC to full safety car just as Verstappen went past the pit lane. Both Ferraris had a pit-stop window behind them and could have double-stopped and got back onto Verstappen’s tail on fresh tyres.

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But, as Horner pointed out, Ferrari did not have a new set of mediums to bolt on. Had they gone for softs, Leclerc would probably have passed Verstappen but the tyres would have been chocolate after a couple of laps and he’d have been re-taken. Ferrari had a decent read on that from Esteban Ocon, who had started out of position and run a long opening stint on hards before fitting softs on lap 41. He was blisteringly fast for a couple of laps and then the rubber went away.

The other option, new hards, would have taken too long to warm-up and in rolling the dice, the Ferraris could have facilitated a Red Bull 1-2.

George Russell had started out of position relative to his potential car performance after a disappointing qualifying (he was mystified as to why his Q2 time was slower than his session-topping FP2 lap!) and ran a long 40-lap opening stint on hards. As soon as he pitted, opening up a stop window behind Perez, Red Bull pulled Sergio in on the next lap and fitted the fresh set of mediums Horner had talked about.

The Ferraris, therefore, would have been trying to warm up hard compound Pirellis for the final few laps, while Perez was right behind them on relatively fresh mediums with still formidable straight-line speed despite an estimated 25bhp deficit from an earlier sensor problem. Probably quite rightly, the Ferrari pit wall didn’t fancy that.


Advantage Red Bull or Ferrari?

Imola and Miami has pointed to Red Bull having a more raceable package than Ferrari, allowing Verstappen to start whittling down Leclerc’s very handy early season championship advantage. And people are starting to question whether Ferrari will – or indeed can – alter their fundamental set-up approach to trade some downforce for additional top speed.

It won’t always be like these past two races though. Leclerc had Verstappen and Red Bull handled for pace in Bahrain and Australia and the scenario will vary pending such nuances as track surface, temperature, compound choice, circuit layout and whether a track if front or rear-limited.

Barcelona will be an interesting one. You’d expect the Ferrari to be very quick in the final sector but the front straight is long enough for the Red Bull’s straight-line speed to come into play. And Turn 3 knocks seven bells out of the left-front, meaning that any ability to better look after a set of rubber is important – thus far a Red Bull strong suit.

But then come Monaco and Azerbaijan, both tracks on which Leclerc is dynamite although, thus far in his career the poor lad hasn’t been able to buy any luck in Monte Carlo, despite it being his home and a place that means so much to him. You’d have to fancy him for both. But he’s going to need a great couple of opening laps at Baku if Verstappen is not going to be a huge nuisance on that monstrously long front straight. Perez is pretty hot around there too…


Mystifying Mercedes pace

At the front, it’s finely balanced and compelling viewing, week-in, week-out. In Miami though, the Mercedes FP2 performance raised an eyebrow or two.

The classification on Friday afternoon was – 1: George Russell – 1min 29.938sec; 2: Charles Leclerc – 1min 30.044sec; 3: Sergio Perez – 1min 30.150sec 4: Lewis Hamilton, 1min 30.179sec.

How? Why? Okay, so Verstappen was having reliability dramas and Sainz was in the wall, but even Leclerc was surprised.

The funny thing was, Russell himself didn’t have a clue, although he suspected it was more to do with track and tyre temperature than the Mercedes suddenly becomingly a benign world-beater.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - MAY 08: Mercedes-AMG Petronas driver George Russell during the Formula 1 CRYPTO.COM Miami Grand Prix on May 8, 2022 at Miami Autodrome in Miami Gardens, FL. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Russell: head of the field in FP2, but eliminated in Q2

Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A day later, with more rubber down and Leclerc knocking on the door of the 1min 28s in Q2, the Merc wouldn’t play ball through the T4-5-6 sweepers, George had a big moment and couldn’t get it round any quicker than 1min 30.173sec, going out in Q2, somewhat dismayed. Had he repeated his FP2 time, he’d have been eighth, just behind Lewis and made it safely into Q3.

In the race, it worked for him. So far back that he had to do something different, he did the reverse strategy and started on the hards, so that when the late race safety car happened, he was on fresher mediums while those ahead were on hards. The first of them was Hamilton, who he inevitably passed and managed to beat for the third time in four races.

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Inevitably there will be those suggesting that the man with 100-plus wins has lost interest, but I doubt that. It’s just that the unprecedented seven-year ‘unfair advantage’ isn’t there anymore and he’s having to work as hard as everyone else, and harder than some.

But Hamilton is a born racer and competitor. You could tell that by the way he went straight on the radio to complain that strategy – not the team’s, just circumstance – had beaten him again and put him behind his team mate. Just in case any of you weren’t paying attention out there!

You had to smile at Nico Rosberg’s beaming face in Imola as he pointed out, in his role as Sky expert, just how much Hamilton “absolutely hates” finishing any race behind a team-mate. The merest hint of schadenfreude there, Nico? But, make no mistake, Russell is absolutely top drawer and Hamilton is likely to have to cope with that again, wherever the Silver Arrows are in the pack.

The Mercedes race pace suggested that FP2 had been an outlier and that they are no closer to a quantum leap forward. The fact is that Valtteri Bottas and his Alfa Romeo outqualified both for the second successive race and looked like beating them in the race until Russell’s switch to mediums and the late race safety car put the pressure on and sucked a mistake out of the frustrated Finn. After a fine recovery following an FP1 crash on Friday, Valtteri would dearly love to have beaten both Mercs across the finish line in Miami. He may yet do it.